The American Ill of Mass Incarceration

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Mass Incarceration is a really big issue in the society we live in today. It has been an unresolved problem since the end of the Civil War. Constantly locking away minorities in a system that was created against them. There are theories to explain why so much criminal activity has been happening and how the location that a person grows up in is important to their lives in the future. A change needs to be made, and it needs to be made soon.

African American oppression dates back hundreds of years. In some cases by our own people, in one of the most well-known cases, during slavery in America. Thousands of lives, transported and sold like animals, taken advantage of, thrown overboard or forced to work in a place they had never been to before. In spite of their struggle, they had a good amount of people willing to speak on their behalf when their voice didn’t matter to society.

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President Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, wanted to end the division between the slave and free states as the United States began to expand westward. After the South seceded from Union sparking the Civil War and had been fighting for about 3 years, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on  January 1, 1863. This declared all slaves in the rebellious states free. However, many slaves weren’t actually freed until years later after the war had officially ended.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, known as the “Reconstruction Amendments”, were passed to ensure that African Americans receive their rights as citizens. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery but people could still be forced to work if incarcerated. The 14th Amendment defines citizenship and granted that citizens would be equally protected under the law and had the right to due process(fair treatment) of the law. The 15th Amendment granted the right to vote regardless of race or previous condition of servitude.

Even though by Federal Law African Americans had their human rights, they were not always recognized by southern states. Whites in the south realized that their economy politics and society were in shambles and wanted to find a way to keep African Americans inferior to them. Black Codes were put in place to deny blacks the civil rights that they had received from the Civil War Amendments. Soon after, “Pig Laws” were put in place to further victimize African Americans under circumstances that were targeted towards them. For example, stealing a farm animal hardly worth $1, or not having a job could get someone put in jail. Minorities in southern society would be the only people that would have to steal in order to get food because they wouldn’t have the means to buy the food. Due to lack of jobs, they would resort to sharecropping which in the end, left them in an unending cycle of debt that they couldn’t pay.

While in jail, prisoners were put into the Convict Leasing system. This meant that they were being “leased” to planters or industrialists which would be responsible for housing and feeding. These “convicts” were cheap and easily replaceable in the eyes of their employers. Often times, the record of how much time a prisoner had served was lost so the employer would assume that they had more time left. Also, the convicts lacked proper food clothing or shelter and due to the harsh punishments and illnesses, many people would die in the convict leasing system.

There was also the Peonage system where a wealthy businessman would pay off the fines for the crime and additional court fees. Another way was that a businessman could vouch on their behalf and use bonds that would pay for the crime. The convict would then sign a contract to work for the businessman without pay until the bond was paid off. Many African Americans hardly knew how to read which meant that they weren’t sure exactly what they were signing off too. Another cheap alternative to building prisons was through Chain Gangs. This forced convicts to work while chained together. Although it was cost-effective, it exposed prisoners to dangerous infections and one slip or fall could affect the whole group.

Criminal Behavior Theories

Over time, people have developed theories to explain why criminals get incarcerated at alarming rates. Many of these explain that the environment that a person grows up in can have an influence on their decision to get involved in criminal activity. These can include the Social Learning Theory, and the Social Disorganization Theory.   Both of these target minorities in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The Social Learning Theory states that people learn behaviors by observing other people. For example, if a child grows up watching the people around them commit crimes and go to jail then they are more likely to get involved in crimes. People in disadvantaged neighborhoods or “hoods” would be the people more likely to steal because they don’t have all of the resources that they need. This plays into mass incarceration because people in these neighborhoods are more likely be suspected of being criminals due to circumstances they can’t control.

The Social Disorganization Theory states that a person’s location is more important than the characteristics that they possess. Instead of learning from the people around them, this theory focuses more on where a person grows up. These socio-economically deprived neighborhoods would be overflowing with immigrants, minorities, and poor people until they had the means to move out of those neighborhoods. Due to the disorganization of the neighborhoods, the people living there are more likely to commit crimes that could them be passed down to others as the Social Learning Theory states.

Both of these theories tie into each other and can explain the reason for mass incarceration today. A person that grows up in a neighborhood where resources aren’t as available as other places, will find those resources even if through criminal activity. When that person gets involved in those things, it can be picked up by the people around them. In some cases, it’s not necessarily the people around you that impact your life. The people that aren’t around you that are supposed to be there can have an effect as well.


Mass Incarceration has caused a lot of problems in society. As of 2013, there were about 2.7 million American children with at least one parent incarcerated. Many of these children end up getting involved in criminal activity themselves due to what they’ve been exposed to. That number has doubled to about 5 million children that have experienced at least one incarcerated parent at one point in their life as of January 2018. When listening to Bobby, a previously incarcerated convict, he told us that the environment he grew up in and the people he hung around had an influence on his decisions.

He also explained that because he did not have a father in his life to push him in the right direction, he sought acceptance from other people which got him involved in the wrong things. The things that he did in his past will also have an impact on his kids when they apply for college in the future. He believes that people need to educate themselves on the justice system and understand that life after being incarcerated is really difficult.

After being let out of prison, the person has to try to find a job, and find somewhere to stay. Many employers stop reading the application and throw it away if they have been convicted of a felony. If they do find a job they have to deal with the employers and co-workers always watching them. Also, family and friends are not always as supportive as people would expect them to be. Bobby had to deal with a lot of judgment and stereotypes from other African Americans, not just whites.

The judicial system we have today has been set up against minorities in America. After the Civil War, whites needed to find a way to keep African Americans working for them to keep the economy going. If the prison system was more about rehabilitation rather than harsh punishments, then criminals would be better off in life. Denying people the right to vote based on a mistake they may have made is never okay.

Many people find their way into the prison system without even knowing how it truly works. This gives them an unfair disadvantage in a fight against a judicial system that was built on biased principles. One piece of advice that Bobby was able to give us was that we need to educate ourselves ahead of time to avoid being blind-sighted. Therefore, there should be more programs that are advocating the importance of understanding the system.

In conclusion, if people aren’t given the resources they need to educate themselves, the past is always going to repeat itself. If people spent more time educating the teens in disadvantaged neighborhoods then they could spread that knowledge to others. Showing one life the right direction can start a domino effect leading to less African Americans getting locked up due to not knowing. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to be the change we want to see.

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Cite this page

The American Ill of Mass Incarceration. (2019, Sep 30). Retrieved from